Scott Abel
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Scott Abel

NOTE: This article, originally published in 2007, is several years old. Some things have changed since its original publication date. I am a few years older, have relocated to San Francisco, and grew my business from home-based to office-based, and doubled the size of my staff. Despite these changes, the basic message is still relevant. At least I think so. What do you think? I’d like to know. Tweet your comments to @scottabel.

Localization is a hot topic among software manufacturers who make tools that they claim can help you provide your customers with relevant, laser-targeted content. More than ever, it seems, these firms are hyper-busy trying to get your attention. From webinars to white papers, from free trial software to conference presentations, from text messages to Twitter tweets, localization software vendors are vying for your attention in hopes you’ll finally make the move to localized content.

Localization software and services vendors usually hail from the translation industry. Some claim to have created entire suites of tools designed to assist you in adapting your products—and product information—for non-native customers, especially those from other nations and cultures, who likely don’t share your native language. Sometimes known as internationalization and localization, this type of service (and the software tools that make their home in this space) are indeed valuable. They can help you adapt products and services for sale in specific regions of the world and help you address locale-specific concerns, including translation of text and other content types. Unfortunately, that’s not really helping us solve the real problem: delivering the wrong information, to the wrong people, at the wrong time, and often, in the wrong format.

What these software and service vendors can’t do is help you provide personalized content designed for individual people in your existing customer base. Sure, some of them are happy to sell you the types of software you’ll need to manage personalized content. But, it’s up to you to make the effort to discover everything you can about each member of your target audience and to use that information to create relevant content that will resonate with each person you’re targeting.

Unfortunately, if you’re like most organizations, your firm probably sucks at this extremely important business task. But, don’t fret. You’re not alone. Pretty much every organization on the planet sucks at content personalization.


Localization Means Getting Personal

Simply put, content localization is nothing more than one very small ingredient in a successful content personalization initiative. It’s “low hanging fruit” for those who are trying to improve their global product marketing or worldwide sales and distribution channels, but it’s not really providing the value most organizations need in such challenging economic times. One only has to look to the world of retail marketing to see the value of personalized communication.

The 2008 Personalization Survey conducted by ChoiceStream found 39% of consumers overall are more likely to click on an ad if it is personalized, while that number rises to 58% among those who shop online at least several times a month.” The more personalized those ads are the better chance retailers have of connecting with those consumers.

The survey also found that the bigger the spender, the greater the interest in personalized ads. Half (50%) of those spending more than $250 online over the past six months indicate that they are more willing to click on ads that are personalized. This compares with only 32% of the smallest spenders.

If you’re like most consumers, you don’t want to receive mass marketing messages masquerading as personalized content. The only ones who apparently think this approach is a good strategy are old school marketers that believe a 2-5% response rate is something to be proud of. [Hint: It’s not!] And, consumers don’t find content valuable unless it meets their individual needs. According to the ChoiceStream survey, 45% of consumers reported receiving personalized recommendations that were a poor match based on their tastes and interests in 2008 (vs. 46% in 2007). The most often cited reasons for why recommendations were considered to be poor were that they were “inappropriate” (51%) or that they didn’t match their personal preferences (48%).

And, it’s not just advertisements that consumers want personalized. According to the ChoiceStream survey, consumers continue to recognize the value of personalization in other types of content. Interestingly, 71% of respondents said personalization would improve their social networking experience by introducing them to other members with similar interests and preferences.

What Is Personalization, Exactly?

The term personalization, unfortunately, is often misunderstood. Personalization does not—as many seem to think—mean inserting the name of the person into a web page or email message, or emblazoning it on a direct “junk” mailer. Personalization is much more than that. It’s an explicit attempt to accommodate the differences between individuals by providing content based on the characteristics of each person in a target audience. Characteristics used to determine what types of personalized content is appropriate include individual attributes like: interests, faith, context, locale, gender, sexuality, previous behavior, marital status, home ownership, financial status, area of study, etc.)

Personalization requires us to know our audience—not just pretend we do—and to develop relevant content of value to each individual, based on what we know about them. That said, when developing a content personalization strategy, it’s also important to consider what is NOT known about each individual and to address this lack of information by finding creative ways to learn (or discern) this missing data.

Language and cultural differences—often things content localization tools were built to address—are things we often assume are similar characteristics of members in a target group. That’s seldom the case. However, even if we are correct, when we only address these two factors, chances are we’re still producing lots of content that doesn’t resonate with many of the individuals that make up our audience. This is one big reason why localizing content without incorporating personalization is nothing more than putting a bandage on a bullet hole. Failing to incorporate personalization in a localization project is a HUGE waste of content creation dollars and a lost opportunity to improve our communication effectiveness.

There’s an old adage that should serve as a proper warning here: “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.”

Making Content Resonate With Content Consumers

As a gay, Caucasian, 45-year old American male, I don’t share the same characteristics as everyone else who lives in my corner of the world. I recently relocated from Indianapolis, IN to Palm Springs, CA – a city that is both disproportionately gay (more than 50% of residents in the city self-identify as gay or lesbian) and Hispanic. I run my own business from a bedroom in a house I rent. I have posted nearly 5,000 “tweets” on Twitter. I just bought a new car. I shop at Target – a lot! I have a cat. I travel frequently. I prefer cash over credit. I have a blog. I recycle. I just registered to vote. I have two iPhones. I will drive out of my way to go to a mall that has an Apple Store. I have a VOIP telephone line. I have Skype. I have a swimming pool. My mom and dad are still alive and well. I am learning Spanish. I mix dance music. I prefer vinyl over CDs. I travel 20-30 times a year on an airplane. I leave the U.S. 2-3 times per year. I love to work in coffee shops. I’m a Mac person. I buy lots of music. I am an uncle. I’m on a low carb diet. I need new eye glasses. I plan to buy a house in the next five years. And yet, I still get the same old junk mail in my post box as everyone else, regardless of the aforementioned facts that describe me, the public records that document many of these events, the data contained in the repositories of all of the companies I interact with, and the many other pieces of data about me not included in any easy to access information portal.

The same holds true for email. I still get exactly the same uninteresting, ill-conceived mass email messages that I received when I lived in Indiana – despite moving 2,000 miles, two time zones, and six agricultural hardiness zones away.


To add injury to insult, the biggest violators come from two camps: marketers pushing localization services and/or software and makers of component content management systems—tools that can actually aid in the management and delivery of personalized content. Ironic? Inefficient? Stupid? Reason to fire a C-Level executive? You betcha! Frankly, it’s laughable (unless you’re an investor!) that the same companies that want to sell you tools and technologies that can help you segment your audience and deliver relevant, personalized content don’t have the time to do this themselves. This type of non-sense was excusable a few years ago. It’s not any longer. If you’re a localization or content management system vendor and you have the nerve to tell your prospects that things like response rates, customer satisfaction, and content quality are improved dramatically when you localize (and by extension, personalize), then it makes perfect sense that you should adopt the exact same tactics for your marketing messages and other content types.

I am certain that I am not the only one that sees how incredibly dumb the current approach is. And, I’m equally confident that some of you reading this article are probably not too happy that I’ve shined light on these disturbing facts. Just be happy I didn’t use your company names and less-than-flattering screen shots of your marketing materials and email advertisements. In the social-media-powered world we find ourselves in today, there’s no excuse for hiding your head in the sand. If you’re still marketing your localization/translation/global information product management software or any one of a number of content management systems (web, component, learning, digital asset, or otherwise) expect a fair amount of public scrutiny from folks like me. Scrutiny and public humiliation may be exactly what you need to force you to begin personalizing your own content. And it’s likely the only way you’re going to get the budget you need to make the same changes your asking your potential customers to make. Such a change is not going to be easy. But, just wait until you see the ROI.

It All Depends On How You Define Success

Savvy marketers know that traditional “spray and pray” approach to marketing can’t compete with highly-targeted, personalized content marketing. Let’s look at the typical marketing approach data to gain an understanding of the concept of direct marketing success.

According to the Direct Marketing Association, the typical response rate for a direct marketing campaign in 2007 was between 2.15 and 5.35 percent. Catalog shopping promotions came in at 2.24%, direct mail fundraisers at 2.1%, lead generation emails at 4.09% (although this may be an exaggeration depending on your definition of “lead”), and website or in-store traffic building at 5.35%.

Do these numbers sound impressive to you? Before you decide, let’s flip those Direct Marketing Association numbers around. Here goes: In a typical direct marketing campaign, 94.65% – 97.85% of those who were targeted will not respond to the offer. Wow! That doesn’t sound like a good use of marketing dollars. And, the reason it sounds like it’s not good is because it isn’t. It’s a huge waste of money caused by the absence of personalized marketing content. And, it’s not acceptable, especially when it doesn’t have to be this way.

One-to-one marketing is the purview of companies like JFM Concepts, makers of the enormously successful personalized URL (PURL) marketing solution VDP Web. While leveraged primarily as a web and direct marketing campaign creation and management tool, personalized URLs outperform old school direct marketing by leaps and bounds. A personalized URL program for Strike Yachts yielded an incredible 14% response rate; while a PURL campaign for ThermoSpas pulled 15.5%, yielding $187,000 in revenue per mailing and an ROI in excess of 10,000%.

JFM Concepts is one of a handful of companies helping marketers gain a new understanding of success in the direct marketing arena. These success stories are made possible because JFM marries information its customers know about their clients (contact data, sales history, etc.) with information collected from public sources (including the National Consumer Database) along with behavioral data (tracking data such as responses to previous offers) to create what they call their Profile Complete Real Time Personalization Service—a real-time content matching engine that can provide personalized content to an individual based on their personal profile. It’s like for marketing. And, it’s getting lots of attention from companies like Caterpillar, Marriott, and other big name global corporations because it works better—much better—than old school approaches.

And yet, even the major players in the Enterprise Content Management (ECM) arena—companies with great big budgets—have yet to see the value of personalized URLs in their own marketing—nor have they realized that their customers need the same capabilities.

Your Color Almost, But Different

In my college years, I was a newspaper reporter whose job it was to locate unusual feature stories. One afternoon I accompanied a group of drag queens on a shopping adventure. They were hunting for low-priced, high-quality wigs from a popular Korean wig market on the East side of Indianapolis. I thought the story would be interesting. According to my editor, it wasn’t. The article never saw the light of day. But, something the wig store owner said to her female impersonator customers relates to the point of this article. Each time one of the guys tried a wig on, no matter where she was in the store, she would shout out, in really bad Kor-Engrish, the same marketing mantra:  “Your color almost, but different.” Today I think back on her approach to making a sale and think it’s pretty much the same tactic used by almost everyone who isn’t using personalized content. Let’s just put something out there, something that *might* be of interest to *some* people in our target audience. Maybe it’s not exactly what they want, but it’ll be their color, almost.

This problem is not limited to marketing. It’s a problem for every organization, in every industry, in every country on the planet. There are very few exceptions.

An adult film producer recently asked me to chat with him about his idea to create sexually-explicit films for a Latino audience. He bumped into me in a coffee shop and overheard my conversation with a client about the need to provide content of relevance to the individual members of their audience. He told me that no one was producing relevant adult content for the millions of Mexicans who have found their way into the United States. It’s not about language, he said, as there are already a plethora of adult films translated into Spanish. “It’s about telling the story in the way Mexican consumers can relate,” he said. “The adult flicks produced in the U.S. for recent immigrants don’t resonate with them.” He had an idea to use the mega-popular and highly-addictive novella story format to create adult-themed films that are not only delivered in localized Spanish, but also attract a loyal base of fans who can’t wait until the next episode to see what will happen next.

Compete, a magazine for gay and lesbians interested in sports, has the same challenges as much bigger sports publications: Delivering the right stories, to the right readers, at the right time, and in the right format. Despite being targeted at sports enthusiasts in the gay community, Compete struggles like every other organization to provide relevant content to its gay and lesbian readership. The one primary difference is that they readily acknowledge the problem and are working to overcome it.

It’s not as easy as it sounds. Compete has to figure out a way to accommodate the wide variety of individual gay readers they are targeting—both women and men—while not losing any of them to the competition. Is bowling a sport? Some readers don’t think so. The International Gay Bowling Association disagrees. So do the tens of thousands of gay bowlers who participate in the world’s largest gay sporting organization. Should the magazine include articles about gay artists who focus on painting sports figures? Should the publication include articles for gay parents on teaching their children about sports? These and many. many other questions need to be answered to help ensure success.

Developing a personalized content strategy for Compete will involve the publishers making a concerted effort to identify the attributes of the individuals in their target audience, combine it with data about their behavior (login and click-through data), and then using that information to create and deliver relevant content to subscribers. The magazine has recently adopted a web content management system that the management hopes will help them manage and deliver engaging content to readers on an individual level. While the magazine management has dreams of seeing their print publication on newsstands around the globe, overcoming the personalized news challenge may be easier—and more affordable—to tackle on the web.

The “Your Color Almost, But Different” problem is something the folks at Google have been working on for some time now. In November of 2007 the company received a patent from the U.S. government entitled “Customization of Content and Advertisements in Publications”. The patent claims Google has developed a “method of receiving personalized content from a plurality of content sources, the personalized content being based on user input; receiving a personalized advertisement based on user input; and creating a customized publication including the personalized content and the personalized advertisement.” The need for such a patent, Google explains, is because consumers are often provided content that doesn’t resonate with them.

“Consumers purchase a variety of publications in various forms —print form (e.g., newspapers, magazines, books, etc.), electronic form (e.g., electronic newspapers, electronic books / e-Books), electronic magazines, etc.), etc. The publishers define the content of such publications, and advertisers define which advertisements (ads) may be seen in the publications. Since consumers have no control over publication content or advertisements, they may purchase a publication that contains at least some content and advertisements that may be of no interest to them.”

And while the Google patent focuses on providing relevant content to readers, it also addresses the needs of content publishers and advertisers.

“Publishers often lack insight into the profiles of consumers who purchase their publications, and, accordingly, miss out on subscription and advertisement revenue due to a lack of personalized content and advertisements. Advertisers,” the Google patent claims, “sometimes purchase sub-optimal or worthless ad space in an attempt to reach their target markets. Advertisers also have difficulty identifying new prospective market segments to target because they have limited insight into the desires and reactions of consumers.”

Google knows the “Your color almost, but different” approach is a big, fat failure. Response rates of 2-5% are nothing to brag about. The “spray and pray” method has run its course and needs to be replaced by personalized content, created, managed, and delivered with individual users in mind. Lesser approaches don’t provide maximum return on investment, no matter what software and services vendors may say.

The Lesson

Localization without personalization is really missing the point. Translation and localization of interfaces and products/services is indeed needed, but there’s really no good reason to translate content until you know exactly what you need to say, how to say it, and to exactly whom your speaking. Localization in isolation is not going to solve your problems—and, in fact, it may create an entire new set of problems (fodder for another article) once you realize the error of your ways. Translating generic content that is not optimized for personal needs of individual customers means you don’t respect your customers enough to care about what they really want and need. It also means your idea of respect is limited to providing translated content that doesn’t address the needs of the individual human beings you are targeting.

If your organization is serious about saving money, eliminating waste, and developing profitable customer relationships that last, take the promised ROI from translation savings and content reuse, factor in the benefits of personalization, including, but not limited to, improved response rates, higher sales figures, and enhanced customer satisfaction ratings and you’ll soon see how much better you could be doing. By eliminating the “Your color almost, but different” approach, you may find the secret to your future success.

What do you think? Share your comments with our readers. I look forward to reading your thoughts. Tweet your thoughts to @scottabel.